Role switching and dynamic job roles

27 September

How can we enable better role switching to create more adaptive organisations?


"A sense of identity is never gained nor maintained once and for all. Like a good conscience, it is constantly lost and regained" — Erik Erikson


Role switching in ant colonies

When an ant colony is presented with an environmental challenge or opportunity, it dynamically reconfigures itself to optimise workflow. Without any central direction or control, without being ordered around by a manager or bureaucrat, workers spontaneously switch roles. They simply exit their current role and transition to another. It is change management without a manager.

Ecologist Deborah Gordon, who has studied ants for decades, categorises external nest workersas performing one of four specialised roles:

1. Foragers go out to collect food and bring it back to the colony.

2. Patrollers roam the foraging area first thing in the morning. They interact with the ants of neighbouring colonies. Their safe return signals that it is time for the foragers to head out.

3. Nest Maintainers continuously render ‘adobe stuccos’ inside the nest with moist soil, and they remove any dry soil.

4. Midden Workers take out the garbage as well as deposit colony-specific pheromones on the midden to help guide the foragers back to the nest.

When the colony is disturbed or encounters fortuitous circumstances, the ants change roles as part of a collective response2.

If there is a sudden increase in the food supply, then nest maintainers, patrollers and midden workers will all switch tasks to participate in the collection of the bounty. This is why your picnic gets overrun with ants — the entire external workforce drops what they are doing to carry away whatever spoils they can.

When there is a need for more patrollers, such as when there is encroachment into the foraging area by neighbouring colonies, or if a foraging trail has been disturbed somehow, then some nest maintainers will spontaneously switch to patrolling duties.

If there is a sudden need for extra maintenance, however, if a big mess inside the nest needs to be cleaned up, then the other ants do not switch back. New maintenance workers need to be recruited from the pool of younger ants3. It seems even ants will evade housework if given half a chance!

The advantages of role switching are obvious. The colony does not have to support an excess of specialists to meet temporal spikes in demand. It can adjust its workforce in real-time to either increase its resilience against shocks or take advantage of new opportunities.


Role switching in organisations

Unfortunately, most organisations are not so agile. We have a bias towards specialisation and sharply defined role boundaries4. We like to draw tight perimeters around our job roles, demarcating them by scope and social function — ‘mental fences’5 that separate one role from the others.

With time and repetition, our job roles fuse with our identities. They become part of how we self-describe, part of our ‘internalised and evolving life story’6, and, most importantly, they become part of how others describe us and form expectations of us. Thus we ‘become’ our role; we become an engineer, or a salesperson, or a manager, with all the internal and external baggage that accompanies that persona. To change roles is to change our identities, even if only a little bit, and therefore is psychologically and socially non-trivial.

In switching roles, an individual not only needs to acquire new technical skills, but they usually need to act differently. The word role was derived from ‘the part played by an actor’7, and the performative aspect is crucial to the format.

Different roles are associated with different performances, audiences, mannerisms, behaviours, patterns of interactions, social networks, symbolic elements, and rituals.

Part of role transition, therefore, involves morphing one’s persona to comply with the social expectations of the new role. Failure to do so undermines one’s legitimacy; one’s part in the play. We are highly sensitive to and intolerant of bad actors. Impression management is an essential part of the gig.

In designing work to be adaptive, enabling people to switch roles fluidly as needs dictate, the morphing and socialisation of alternative personas is just as important as developing new technical skills.


Role Adaption

Herminia Ibarra suggests that role adaptation involves three basic tasks8:

1. Observing role models to identify potential identities,

2. Experimenting with provisional selves, and

3. Evaluating experiments against internal standards and external feedback.

Observing role models in action allows neophytes to accumulate tacit knowledge about the demeanours, techniques, verbal and non-verbal communication styles, social rituals, etcetera, that are enacted by those who excel in their roles.

This tacit knowledge provides a base from which to ideate and prototype a repertoire of approaches or interaction styles. They can use insights gained from observing others to experiment with slightly different versions of themselves, to mimic certain traits perhaps, or test alternative styles.

Ibarra calls this process of acquiring new behavioural skills ‘experimenting with provisional selves’. It’s about mustering up the courage to try out new behaviours and refine them through trial and error9.

Assessing how well these provisional selves are performing is a matter of feedback, either through critical self-reflection against one’s own standards and/or via external evaluation. This is where coaching, mentoring, and candid team feedback can be of enormous value.


A VUCA Strategy

As organisations become more and more buffeted by the winds of VUCA, a sophisticated approach to training and development will be required. We will need to accept role switching as an adaptive strategy and start to tear down the mental fences that confine people to limited functions. We will need to create the spaces and environments where individuals can learn to adapt to new roles through trial and error, where they can try out provisional versions of themselves and continuously grow their behavioural repertoires.


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy



References and notes:

  1. 75% of the colony works inside the nest, storing food, looking after the larvae etcetera. There are also a lot of ‘reserve’ ants that do nothing. These categories are just for the ants that come to the surface.
  2. See Deborah M. Gordon, Dynamics of task switching in harvester ants, Animal Behaviour, Volume 38, Issue 2, 1989, ISSN 0003-3472,
  3. See Local Interactions Determine Collective Behavior for a good video on this.
  4. Ashforth, B. E. (2001). Role transitions in organizational life: An identity-based perspective. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
  5. Zerubavel, E. 1991. The fine line: Making distinctions in everyday life. New York: Free Press.
  6. McAdams, D., & McLean, K. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22 (3), 233-238.
  7. Thomas, E. J., & Riddle, B. J. (1966). The nature and history of role theory. In B. J. Biddle & E. J. Thomas (Eds.), Role theory: Concepts and research (pp. 3-19). New York: Wiley.
  8. Ibarra, H. (1999). Provisional selves: experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation. Admin. Sci. Quart. 44, 764–79.
  9. ibid.

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